Although I have been trying to cut down on my consumption of social media recently but no matter how long I’ve managed to stay away, the debate for and against the regulation of drones never seems to go away.
This ever present trend appears to be fuelled by very passionate arguments from both sides of a divide, between which there appears to be little common ground. Those against the rules will call out the ‘drone police’ as being against creativity and those in favour of the rules will point out that the rules are there to ensure a sense of fair play for all operators and indeed to provide a general degree of safety for all members of society.
To be honest, I am quite surprised at the apparent negative opinion toward the rules governing unmanned aviation in Ireland. My personal opinion is that we Irish aren’t the biggest fans of rules in general and that we certainly don’t like being reminded about such formality , especially if we feel as though such reminders are being force fed to us...
Historians might draw a parallel between our rebellious nature and our national identity that’s directly attributable to several hundred years of struggle against foreign oppression. Arguably equally powerful is our built-in desire to govern ourselves, but does any of this historic angst give us the right to automatically reject all rules full stop? I, for one, certainly hope that it does not.
Considering the almost draconian approach of some countries would most obviously highlight how very progressive the Irish approach to regulation of this space has been so far. If anything, we have a most lenient regulatory environment that trusts our community to exercise appropriate care and sensibility when taking to our skies without any prior training, virtually no bureaucracy, and without any insurance or other laborious or tedious requirements for additional observers or assistance. Not only that, we are one of the only countries in the world that allow drone pilots to fly at night without any special exemptions. So why all the resistance?
When the first rules were published in Ireland, getting involved in drones was a complicated and expensive process. Sourcing an aircraft, getting training from the manufacturer, finding a company to insure you, getting a licence, dealing with Air Traffic Control who don’t know what a drone is, the list goes on. Having some rules that govern all this makes sense, and certainly wouldn’t be top of your list of issues that are keeping you up at night. Contrast this with today, where there are multiple drone dealers in Ireland as well as a variety of sites offering quick delivery and aircraft that are GPS enabled, practically fly themselves and all for the price of an expensive smartphone. Information is freely available online and influencers fly drones in their YouTube videos, frequently breaking the national rules which in some countries are very restrictive. In a world of instant gratification, the idea of following restrictive rules and contacting air traffic control when all you are doing is flying a small drone could seem a bit much.
Oddly enough, when barriers to entry had been kept so much higher by a much tougher regulatory approach, there appeared to have been a lot less public resistance to a rules based approach! I believe that the resistance to the current, arguably much softer, *principle based approach, has actually been brought about by the significantly lower barriers to entry that have been greatly facilitated by a combination of falling technology costs as well as by the almost minimal regulatory environment that we all enjoy today. Concurrently, we have also seen massive technology price drops which ensures much wider physical accessibility of devices.
Perhaps the real coup de gras, in recent times, has been the rapid advances in technology that has seen devices come to market which now achieve markedly increased performance in much lighter formats. These advances are rapidly leading us towards a position almost completely devoid of all regulatory and bureaucratic encumbrance when using some devices in certain, albeit very specific, contexts. In simple language, it’s never been a better, easier time to start flying drones. And perhaps this is where the trouble really begins? Now that it’s so easy to buy and fly, do some of us now need to be reminded about just what a privilege this is?!
Personally, I have no desire to ‘police the rules’ and have even less desire to force feed same to others. However, I do feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work in manned aviation for over ten years, and that for the last four years to to have had the experience and enjoyment of flying drones too. I have also had the pleasure of teaching hundreds of drone pilots in Ireland, and abroad, and have worked with drone regulators, manufacturers and software builders globally.
My attitude toward the rules hasn’t changed, but my understanding of why people, on both sides of the great drone divide, feel so strongly has. As military aviators, myself and several of my colleagues (all of whom have families, many of whom have children) have had near miss experiences with drones whilst flying manned aircraft, so to us, the altitude and proximity to aerodromes limits seem like obvious rules that should be obeyed.
As a pilot of unmanned aircraft, I have also experienced numerous drones fall out of the sky, act in a strange way uncommanded, act as they should but the input was an error, and on occasion just fly away inexplicably. I have also received, and have seen others receive, nasty lacerations as a direct function of involuntary getting struck by drone propellers. On this basis alone, the distance limits relating to people and livestock seems obvious too. The average weight of an average drone is approximately the same as a bag of sugar. One wouldn’t like to think of a bag of sugar getting dropped on a pet, friend or loved one in a public park. Now imagine adding four rotors spinning at high speed to that mix?
There are just some of the arguments to support why many of my colleagues, in both the manned and unmanned aviation communities and I, feel that the rules should only exist, but also why these (existing) rules should be better enforced. The simple reality is that if we are unfortunate enough to have an aircraft struck by a drone, or a member of the public hurt by a drone, the Irish Aviation Authority could likely to be left with with little choice but to move from what is currently seen as very progressive regulatory approach by international standards , to an approach that will likely be seen as either totalitarian and or draconian. Whatever issues one might have with the current approach, do anyone really want to be the one who is remembered as the person who ruined it for everyone?
My advice as someone who pilots manned and unmanned aircraft for a living, as as follows: Stay out of controlled airspace, it is there for a reason. Don’t fly your drone above the height limit - believe it or not but the best shots are often taken from the places that a helicopter can’t easily go! Stay away from people unless you get their permission. You’d hardly go cutting your hedge with an electric shears if you’re neighbour was leaning up against it? It equally isn’t fair to fly something so close to somebody that could cause them just as much harm. Don’t fly outside of line-of-sight, it doesn’t aid creativity but it does increase risk of hitting a low flying aircraft. Worst of all, even though the prices or falling, you still wouldn’t want to lose €500 or even a thousand quid?!
On a more positive note, most importantly, please do get out and fly! Fly until your fingers are sore. Create beautiful videos and pictures with these amazing aircraft and post them for your friends to see but do so with the added challenge of obeying the rules. Anyone can choose to fly illegally, but the best shots I’ve seen in Ireland have been taken by pilots who understand why the rules are there and why they should follow them. It might not be as easy but it most certainly will be more rewarding to know that you are supporting fairer and safer community for us all to operate successfully in!
*Rules vs principles: Rule: You shall not fly your Mavic.
Principle: You shall only fly your Mavic in a way that will not endanger people, property or livestock. The later approach places a trust in the operator to do the right thing and to behave sensibly.
Gearóid is the chairman of the Unmanned Aircraft Association of Ireland and co-founder and CEO of FlyRyte Drone Academy. With 11 years experience as a military flight instructor and an MBA from Smurfit Graduate Business School he leads the FlyRyte team in their mission to progress the Irish drone industry and support drone pilots throughout their career.